Today, an Oakland small business owner and activist partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to sue U.S. Postal Service (USPS) officials for illegally stopping, seizing and searching a set of four ordinary boxes containing thousands of Covid-19 face masks bearing political messages in June 2020.
The masks belonged to René Quiñonez, who operates Oakland-based Movement Ink LLC, a justice-focused screen-printing company. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, organizers hired René to print as many face masks as possible to distribute to protestors marching for justice across the country. René, his family, employees and volunteers worked nearly nonstop to print, pack and ship the masks—which had messages like “Stop Killing Black People”—overnight to organizers in Brooklyn, D.C., Minneapolis and St. Louis.
But they didn’t arrive. Instead, he and his clients were greeted by a disturbing “Alert” on the USPS’s website: “Seized by Law Enforcement.” There was no further explanation, and officials made no effort to contact René. Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, René learned that officers claimed the ordinary brown boxes were seized because they resembled other brown boxes shipped from another city that had contained drugs. Based on nothing more, the Postal Service seized and searched the packages without obtaining a warrant, let alone having the probable cause necessary to obtain one. The masks eventually arrived, albeit multiple days (and protests) later.
René was frustrated and his customers were concerned. The seizures cast a pall of suspicion over Movement Ink. He lost customers and partners, and to this day René and Movement Ink are struggling to recover from the blow to their reputation.
“Our constitutional rights don’t stop at the post office door,” said Jaba Tsitsuashvili, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents René. “The Fourth Amendment protects our right to send and receive mail, without worrying that it will be seized and searched without a warrant. Our lawsuit seeks to hold the officers accountable for violating René’s constitutional rights. Doing so means overcoming the near-absolute immunity from accountability erected by the courts when federal officials violate the Constitution.”
Following the seizure, René contacted his Congresswoman and submitted a FOIA request to find out what happened with his packages. The Postal Service denied targeting René for the masks’ political messages, and instead attempted to justify the seizures based on characteristics that could apply to millions of packages shipped through the mail:
First, USPS said the boxes were “sent from Eureka”—a city 275 miles north of Oakland, in a region informally known as the “Emerald Triangle” because it is the largest cannabis-producing region in the country. That was obviously false; René shipped them from a post office a few blocks from his shop in Oakland, and the packages’ origin was clearly marked.
Second, USPS said the packages were “frequently mailed parcels from the same sender/address.” But being a business that frequently ships packages is obviously not a reasonable ground for suspicion.
Third, it suggested that the boxes being “taped or glued on all seams” was suspicious (as though secure packaging is indicative of criminality), and finally, that the packages’ destinations—four major American cities—were “known drug trafficking area[s].” But that combination of factors applies to packages shipped around the country from businesses small and large every day.
“Arguing that shipping a well-packaged box from one city to another suffices to seize it is preposterous,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “Under the Post Office’s reasoning, almost any package could be seized and searched without a warrant, which is clearly unconstitutional.”
“I started Movement Ink to support the social justice community and earn an honest living for my family,” said René. “The government, whether it is a police officer or a postal inspector, doesn’t get to run roughshod over individual rights and get away with it.”
The lawsuit argues that the USPS officials violated René’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights when they seized, detained and searched his mail without reasonable suspicion, probable cause or a warrant. The lawsuit also argues that the USPS officials violated René’s clearly established First Amendment rights to the extent that they retaliated against him for his political speech. The lawsuit is part of the Institute for Justice’sProject on Immunity and Accountability, which seeks to hold government officials at all levels accountable for violating constitutional rights.